Prague, 11 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- In one of the ironic twists of history, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who came to power by inflaming Serb nationalist passions over Kosovo, may now see his political survival in making concessions to the Kosovars.
Last night, the official Yugoslav news agency Tanjug reported that the Serbian government -- which consists of hand-picked Milosevic supporters -- is willing to hold what it called an "open dialogue" with the leaders of the mainly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo in southern Serbia.
The Serbian government, under strong international pressure to reign in its deadly police crackdown on Albanian nationalists, for the first time appeared to attach no conditions to opening talks. Earlier, the government had said the Kosovars had to renounce terrorism and secession for talks to take place. The Tanjug statement said that dialogue "is the only way to improve political processes" to solve what it called "vital issues."
Keeping Milosevic's past behavior in mind, however, it is far too early to be optimistic over the prospects for talks that could solve the long-festering Kosovo crisis. Analysts say the offer could only be Milosevic's latest attempt to sow confusion in the West and forestall threatened sanctions. It is far from clear what Serbia's real terms for talks are. There may well be conditions that will be unacceptable to the ethnic Albanian leaders in Kosovo.
However, Milos Vasic, editor of "Vreme" magazine in Belgrade, says talks may offer a way for both sides to save face. The two sides have each taken comfort from the words of U.S. Balkans envoy Robert Gelbard, who criticized the Serbian government for using what he called "brutal, disproportionate and overwhelming" force against the Kosovars, but also called the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK) a terrorist organization.
Vasic says it may be to the benefit of both sides to appear reluctantly to give in to Western pressure to sit down and negotiate -- much as the three sides in the Bosnian war were dragooned into the Dayton Peace talks that ended that war.
As for the results of any potential talks between the Kosovars and the Serbian government -- speaking for Milosevic -- it is clear that independence for Kosovo is out of the question.
Kosovo has for centuries been considered sacred to all Serbs, and the Battle of Kosovo Polje ("the field of the blackbirds") in 1389 is the central defining moment in Serbian history. Although the Serbs lost both the battle and their state to the Turks, becoming subjects of the Ottoman Empire for almost five centuries, the memory of Kosovo has been lovingly burnished in Serb folk songs and poems through the centuries. The anniversary of the battle, June 28, is still celebrated as the Serb national holiday.
Although outsiders might consider the Serbs to be one of the few nations in the world to so commemorate a massive defeat, in Serb mythology Kosovo has come to be seen as a victory in which the Serbs take credit for slowing the advance of the Turks into Europe, and saving European Christianity from Islam.
As one young Serb told this (female) correspondent in Belgrade once: "If it weren't for the Battle of Kosovo, you would be wearing a headscarf today."
No one has exploited Serbian sentiment about Kosovo more adroitly than Milosevic. In 1987, Milosevic ignited the flame of Serbian nationalism that was to destroy Yugoslavia by stridently defending Serbs who felt they were mistreated as a minority in Kosovo. In words that were to mobilize Serbs for a succession of battles as Yugoslavia blew apart, Milosevic told a Serb crowd in Kosovo: "No one is allowed to beat you."
Launching a campaign against what he said was Albanian separatism, Milosevic whipped up near hysteria among Serbs throughout Yugoslavia. Belgrade media followed the historic Milosevic visit with invented tales of rapes and murders by ethnic Albanians until Kosovo was stripped of its autonomy and a virtual police state was imposed. It should be noted that the Serbs' claims then became a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the emergence of the Kosovo Liberation Army at the end of 1996, after some Kosovars lost patience with their leaders' pacifist approach.
Milosevic went on to become Serbian and then Yugoslav president, first fanning Serb nationalism into wars in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, and then bowing to international pressure to emerge as one of the chief peacemakers of the Balkans.
It is one of the ironies of Serbian politics that Milosevic may be better placed than his opposition to find talking points with the Kosovars. If anything, Serbian opposition leaders have long tried to prove they are better nationalists than Milosevic -- and so have closed off all avenues of communication with the Kosovars.
Although Kosovo remains a rallying point for many Serbs, it is now also clear that for many others, the attachment to Kosovo is little more than something they have learned by rote. Since Milosevic made his rabble-rousing speech in 1987, Serbs, who were already a minority in the province, have continued to leave Kosovo. Serbs who live in other parts of the republic almost never even pay a visit to Kosovo, the supposedly cherished cradle of their civilization.
And the points of contact between Serbs and Albanians are even fewer than between the Serbs and the other nations they have battled recently -- the Croats and the Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). Although the Serbs could claim the Croats were Ustashe (fascists) and the Bosniaks were Muslim fundamentalists when it served their propaganda purposes, all three were at least Slavic people who shared a common language and frequently intermarried.
But in Kosovo, the separation of Serbs from Albanians is total. They speak different languages, have different ethnic roots and live resolutely apart, with virtually no intermarriage. In one recent survey, 95 percent of Kosovo Albanians said they would not even consider marrying a Serb.
With the high birth rate among the ethnic Albanians, and the departure of so many Serbs, ethnic Albanians in Kosovo now outnumber Serbs nine-to-one. (Some say the percentage of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo is as high as 93 percent.)
So the simple mathematics of being so vastly outnumbered in Kosovo may -- just may -- finally prompt the Serbs, led by Milosevic, to make some concessions, such as restoring autonomy to Kosovo.